The Time Has Come for Joe Halstead to Return to Dimension Z
Joe Halstead’s West Virginia is a classic depiction of existentialist struggle between the individual’s “facticity” and his desire to be more than his facticity
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In West Virginia, a hometown isn’t simply where you were born and raised. It’s also a map to your future life, a repository of places and people who instill you with their values, views and virtues, and who ultimately circumscribe your life’s trajectory. For the novel’s protagonist Jamie Paddock, this qualifies it as something of a prison, an invisible cell that’s followed him to New York City in his bid to escape it. As Joe Halstead’s debut novel opens, he’s trying to make it in The Big Apple as a self-defining writer, yet remnants of his Appalachian past — be it his accent or his palpable inferiority complex — are holding him back, preventing him from assuming full ownership of his existence.
And there’s also the matter of his father’s suicide. As the novel begins, Jamie is skirting around it, with his unwillingness to contemplate funerals and family visits being a clear manifestation of his unwillingness to be pulled back into the grip of his home state. At a party in the novel’s first chapter, the unnamed third-person narrator informs us, “His only thought was the overpowering desire to have sex and that seemed to happen when he was thinking of death, which he’d been doing since his father stopped his truck on US Highway 19.” Since he’d vastly prefer not to dwell on his father’s annihilation and the grim prospect of returning home, he spends this brief opening chapter sharing “a sandwich bag of mushrooms” with other partygoers and eventually, after a semi-conscious encounter in a bathroom, taking home a girl who “seemed like a squatter” and “fucking her really hard.”
It’s this girl — later revealed by one of Jamie’s friends to be called Sara — who essentially kick starts the plot and sends it on its way. She does this by walking off with Jamie’s leather jacket soon after their intoxicated tryst, taking with it an arrowhead that was buried in one of its pockets. Admittedly, an arrowhead might seem like a fairly innocuous and inconsequential object to purloin, yet even before the first chapter is over it becomes plain that it is in fact a fairly transparent symbol of the direction of Jamie’s life.
It becomes clearer still when, in the second chapter, the story of how Jamie came into its possession is recounted. On a deer-hunt when “five or six years old,” Jamie “fell on his butt and noticed the arrowhead lying under a laurel bush.” Having been saved from this laurel bush, its status as a metaphor is made redundantly palpable in the dialog that immediately follows, with Jamie asking, “Wonder what it’s pointin to then,” and his father replying, “Maybe the search for whatever it’s pointin to is better than whatever it’s pointin to.”
Somewhat heavy-handed as a metaphor it may be, yet the disappearance of the arrowhead in conjunction with the death of his father serves to introduce the reader to the fact that Jamie has fallen into an existential crisis, no longer sure of who he is or where he’s going. “In all things Jamie strove to be like his father,” yet the loss of his father means that he now effectively faces a choice between either one of two things: continue imitating his father by ending (either literally or metaphorically) his own life, or forge a new, more individuated identity that doesn’t rely on his deceased role model (and his home state) for its substance.
What follows is the all-but inevitable return to West Virginia, where Jamie escapes from the “steel skyscrapers” and “hipster guys” of NYC. Back home, he stays with his ailing mother and semi-reclusive sister, re-immersing himself in his roots with a varying mix of apathy and antipathy. He goes to confederate-flag-waving parties with his cop cousin Will, who he catches at one point pleasuring himself while some upstanding member of society named Boojee takes extreme license with an unconscious female. He goes around selling venison with his sister Carol, who accompanies him on a visit to “these black people up the road” in order to atone for having repeatedly supplied said people with something that wasn’t quite deer meat. And he takes in the “dark woods and hollers and freshly dug strip mines” of West Virginia, which of all the novel’s various landscapes and characters is captured in brutally affectionate detail, with Halstead figuratively comparing the Appalachian topology to such ominous things as “enormous graves large enough to bury a race of ten-thousand people.”
Where West Virginia becomes more interesting is with its subtle assertion that it isn’t so much the poverty and backwardness of Jamie’s home state per se that causes him despair, but rather the apprehension that he can’t escape its influence on him as a person. When he visits someone who knew his father, he reacts with horror to the man’s affirmation, “Now you are the dead spittin image of your daddy now,” with the unnamed narrator adding, “and Jamie just wanted him to stop.” Similarly, when he’s sat with his racist extended family around a dinner table one evening, he glumly muses to himself, “you were always meant to come back. This was, he knew, how you lived with West Virginia.”
With such gloomy admissions on the rootedness of identity, the novel slowly emerges as something of an existentialist one, as depicting the classic existentialist struggle between the individual’s “facticity” and his desire to be more than his facticity. Yet what makes West Virginia a decidedly contemporary book is its suggestion that, in attempting to move away from our roots and become individuals, we lose our authenticity, becoming fakes and imitators instead.
This dilemma comes out in how Jamie speaks and thinks of New York — the city to which he’s relocated in an attempt to become more than an expression of West Virginia — as if it were a massive lie or some kind of VR simulation. Because he found it replete with people like him who’re trying to (re)make themselves, he became jaded and disoriented by all the poses and pretenses, the narrator telling us, “He wondered why he kept living in a place that wasn’t real.”
And it’s not just his inner and outer dialogs that emphasize this New Yorkish artificiality, but the details Halstead weaves into the narrative’s texture. At one point before Jamie leaves for West Virginia, he and Sara cosy up to repeatedly watch “a vaporwave music video,” vaporwave being a genre of electronic music that emphasizes the virtual, the simulated, and the hyperreal. At another, he’s roped into providing the voiceover for a manga video the ad agency he works for is producing, finding it very difficult to stomach the incongruity of proclaiming, “The time has come to return to Dimension Z.” With such moments, the novel renders New York as the inauthentic foil to West Virginia’s gritty, mountain-guaranteed authenticity, thereby underlining the existential quandary in which Jamie has found himself.
It’s precisely in the playing out of this quandary that the novel develops and ends, with Jamie’s visit to West Virginia providing the occasion for him to compare his older self against the self he might become. Of course, it would be unfair to divulge just how exactly it ends, but suffice to say Halstead offers no easy answers and no simple resolutions, most likely because there aren’t any (at least not in the ‘have our cake and eat it too’ sense). Some readers might find the lack of black-and-white clarity unnerving and frustrating, yet it’s necessary insofar as it reinforces Jamie’s realization that, in order to leave behind the “blown-out tires and buzzards devouring road kill” of WV, he has to leave behind the connection to place and past that endows him with a certain ‘realness.’
And while there are certain parts of the novel that don’t seem especially ‘real’ in the sense they’re a little overstated — the glaring arrowhead metaphor being a prime example — for the most part the book charts a journey that’s entirely sympathetic and relatable. In the end, it penetrates into the emotional conflict that comes with being caught indecisively and indeterminately between two cultures, and it teases out the realization that, after all, there’s nothing particularly wrong with being caught between two cultures. But more than that, it reveals a new and promising debut writer, who has found his own voice by speaking the voices of two places at once.